Thinking about hiring a chief digital officer? Don’t!

Natalie Steers
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The chief digital officer (CDO) is the latest role emerging to help businesses survive in the era of digital disruption but making a C-level individual responsible for a digital strategy is potentially “disastrous” for some firms.

That’s according to Forrester analyst Martin Gill who, in a new blog post, stakes his claim in the debate by illustrating three brand examples: Amazon, Burberry and Blockbuster.
Digital is in Amazon’s DNA, he says, and as such doesn’t need a CMO heading up traditional activities with a separate team running search and social or a merchandizing team for the web and a separate one for wholesale or stores. The company thinks holistically rather than in terms of channels and, born digital, has no need for a CDO.
Burberry has become a pin-up for innovative brands, bringing digital experiences to in-store, catwalk shows and its celebrity association – all without appointing a CDO. Burberry’s recipe was a digitally savvy CEO who could clearly articulate her vision, says Gill.

Finally, he turns to Blockbuster as one firm that could potentially have benefited from a CDO role. “In a world going digital, Blockbuster failed to recognise that the fulfilment model for its content was changing or to embrace digital as a means of engaging its customers. Appointing a CDO could have helped change this, he says.

According to Gill, firms that weren’t born digital need to get digital pretty damn quick and to do this they require the ability to develop and articulate a digital vision and the ability to embed large scale cultural change into an organisation.

“Appointing a C-level individual to be responsible for driving a digital agenda could be disastrous for many traditional firms. It risks degenerating into a political minefield as other executives say ‘Hey, digital is her job, nothing to do with me’.

“Rushing out and hiring a digital upstart could set many firms back, rather than propel them forward. Not many people are both digitally savvy enough to develop a bold vision for the future and really know how to drive a transformation on this scale. In many cases such a fundamental shift for a firm may be better led by the CEO with the support of the entire C-suite.”

He concludes: “I am in no doubt that firms need to transform. But rather than pin the hopes on a single Che Guevara style revolutionary, CEOs in particular must recognize that this is an incredibly complex problem.”

Constellation founder and analyst Ray Wang recently explained that the chief digital officer has evolved as a result of the shift from analogue marketer to the technology-focused marketer. 

“Market leaders should choose to create a new role of CDO by bringing the best of CMO and CIO into a new area. Fast Followers should bring IT and CMO closer together before creating this new role. Cautious adopters and laggards should wait and see if there is a need for this position,” he said. 

What are your thoughts on the emerging chief digital officer role? Do you agree with Gill that digital companies need not apply?


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